Two families explore the wonders and wilds of the Bahamas during an Exuma charter (published August 2016)
Being at the helm of a catamaran for the first time in a 20-knot, early-morning breeze felt a little like being shot out of a cannon at full speed. We enjoyed a nice reach after leaving Palm Cay Marina, in the southeast corner of New Providence Island in the Bahamas. It was nice being on the water again since the New England winter had set in at home several months earlier. We had a 25 to 40 nautical mile run ahead of us across the Yellow Bank, depending on which anchorage we would choose as our destination neared. We were happy to face the slightly choppy but protected conditions of the bank rather than the bigger swell on the ocean side of the Exuma Chain.
The ride in our chartered Lagoon 39 was uneventful until the last half hour when the block at the headsail clew gave way and released the jib sheet from the clew. This left us with no easy way to furl the sail without it unwrapping as it thrashed around in the stiff breeze. We got lucky and were able to temporarily secure it, keeping the wind from thrashing it around uncontrollably. We dropped anchor in Shroud Cay just as squalls gathered around us.
Setting the anchor in crystal clear water instantly brought back memories of our previous adventures in the Exumas and why we were excited to return to explore more. Four years earlier, we had a taste of the Bahamas as we were sailing back toward home in the U.S. after a winter cruising in the Caribbean on our Hallberg Rassy. Due to time constraints, we didn’t get to visit as many places in the Bahamas as we hoped. Last summer, when I accidentally came across information about Navtours based in Montreal, Canada, which is just about the only company that offers charters in the Exumas, I was immediately intrigued. This was a chance to return to further explore the island chain and share the adventure with friends.
THIS IS NOT THE BVI
This was the first I had heard of a company offering bareboat sailing in the Exumas. It important to know ahead of time that chartering in this isolated archipelago is not the same as chartering in places like the British Virgin Islands. But if you do, it you will be rewarded with incredibly clear water, abundant wild and sea life and hundreds of anchorages all away from crowds.
When chartering in the Exumas, expect to anchor more often than you will hang on moorings, to use eyeball navigation for coral head sightings and to keep a close eye out for strong currents, especially in the cuts. There are very few marine facilities, stores or restaurants and the region is far enough north that the trade winds are regularly disrupted by frontal systems. The rewards are high and well worth the challenges; beautiful warm turquoise water with many isolated beaches and spits with very few boats or people around. And the conditions on the protected bank almost always provide for fairly smooth sailing.
In the morning, the wind settled down just enough that we were able to jury rig a bosun’s chair and hoist one of the lighter crew members to reconfigure the jib sheet attachment. This relatively minor incident reminded us that there is always something to break on a boat and finding creative ways to fix them adds to the enjoyment of the whole adventure.
EXPLORING THE EXUMA
We spent an evening exploring the estuaries and mangroves of Shroud Cay and then the following day we sailed a few hours to Warderwick Wells, the home of the headquarters of the Exumas Cays Land and Sea Park. It was comforting to tuck into this protected spot and pick up a mooring after a few windy days lying to our anchor. We weren’t the only sailors thinking along these lines, either, as the mooring balls were fully occupied soon after we arrived.
The next few days were spent snorkeling the reefs, exploring the many isolated beaches, hiking the seven miles of trails and visiting the Boo Boo Hill, where cruisers leave pieces of driftwood decorated with their boat names. The building where park headquarters is housed is a good place to learn about the park and pick up a trail map and snorkeling guide. It is easy to stay occupied here; there are blow holes to see, a skeleton of a 53 foot sperm whale to examine and when that seems like too much the best is jumping off the boat and just frolicking in the shallow waters next to the channel.
The Exuma Land and Sea Park is a true gem of the Exumas that was established in 1958. It is a no-take zone on land and sea that spans roughly from Shroud Cay to Compass Cay. As result the sea life is well established and seems bigger and more abundant than in the non-protected islands. One afternoon, as we were snorkeling, we were pleasantly surprised by a curious five foot ray swimming with us near the boat.
It was hard to leave Warderwick Wells, where exploring the park could have occupied us for another week. But we wanted to make a few more stops before the end of the charter so off we went. The fair weather allowed for a quick transit on the ocean side of the islands to Norman Cay. We set the anchor just off the channel and somewhat out of the current and had lunch while we waited for slack tide. Soon the channel was still so we dove off the sterns and swam off to snorkel around the plane wreck that is in the shallows just off the anchorage.
The Curtiss C-46 Commando is a remnant of Carlos Lehder’s reign of the island. Carlos Lehder, a co-founder of the Medellin Carte, ran his drug transport empire from Norman Cay in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. It was an amazing snorkeling experience and interesting to imagine what Norman Cay was like at the height of the drug running days. Think Miami Vice or Blow, the 2001 movie starring Johnny Depp.
Navtours provides a very well stocked fleet of boats, cared for by knowledgeable and professional staff at a luxurious new facility at Palm Cay Marina. Communication ahead of the charter was great and saved precious vacation time as we had access to their provisioning and transportation services. There were many thoughtful touches which made the trip stress free. Each boat comes stocked with a full set of Explorer Chartbooks, so there is no need to lug your own like we did. And, they have a wide variety of water toys (snorkeling gear, paddleboards, kayaks, fishing poles) to keep sailors of all ages happy. The captain’s briefing was thorough and all questions were answered patiently.
The Lagoon 39 catamaran was a very comfortable platform for our group of eight (four adults and four teenagers). The boat never felt cramped, there were many places to relax and spread out. The storage for food in the refrigerator and freezer was cavernous and unlike anything I’ve experienced on our own monohulls. The davits made dinghy launching and stowing a cinch. Maneuvering to and hovering at a mooring ball was made super easy with twin engines but grabbing the pennant and rigging the bridle was trickier than expected due to the high freeboard at the bows.
NOT JUST FOR SNORKELING
The week was coming to an end far too quickly. Before heading back to Palm Cay, the charter base, we spent a night anchored off Highborne Cay. Even though the meals had been superb on board, Xuma’s restaurant at Highborne Cay Marina was the perfect spot for a celebratory 18th birthday meal and first legal alcoholic drink. Afterwards, we toyed with the idea re-anchoring the boat in the protected anchorage at Allan’s Cay but decided instead to dinghy over. Allan’s Cay is a tight anchorage protected by many small islands inhabited by iguanas. The nooks and crannies make for fun exploring by paddleboard or kayak.
Our trip included extra days after the charter during which we used Sandra’s Taxi service to explore New Providence Island and the main city of Nassau. This family run company was one of the best taxi services we’ve ever experienced in all of our travels. They were a fun bunch and had good insight into ‘off the beaten path’ places to visit, and super knowledgeable about all facts Bahamas related, from economy to history. Our goal became to come up with questions to stump them but that never happened. One of the great rewards of traveling is meeting interesting people in unexpected places.
Our pre-departure preparation for this trip included getting a Batelco sim card from mrsimcard.com using the Active Captain discount. The aim was to use cell coverage when available to have access to weather data. This turned out not to be as effective as we hoped since the cell tower at Highborne Cay, which provides service for a wide part of the island chain, was out of operation for almost the entire week we were there.
We were able to keep up to date on weather information from VHF broadcasts and by talking to cruisers with access to weather services or NOAA broadcasts on SSB frequencies. We also loaded Garmin Bluechart on an iPad as backup electronic charts. This wasn’t absolutely necessary but nice since the charts incorporated features like Active Captain and seemed more accurate in places than the Navionics charts.
There are many secluded and sublime spots to see and explore in the Exumas, the trickiest part for us was narrowing it down to a manageable trip in a week. You can easily tailor your trip to specific parts by starting and or ending at one of the other Navtours bases in Staniel Cay or Georgetown. Long known and loved mainly by experienced cruisers who own their own boats, the Exumas are now open to sailors from near and far who have the skill and the spirit of adventure that cruising these islands require.
Tatja Hopman is the editor of Cruising Compass and regular contributor to Multihulls Quarterly and Blue Water Sailing. She, with her husband Pablo and their two daughters, spent a winter cruising from New England to the Caribbean and back several years ago.